In this extensive and exclusive interview, we sat down with Morris who detailed Arizona State’s general recruiting philosophy, as well as its methodology in recruiting in-state prospects, as he laid out the program’s numerous advantages that are employed in the team’s recruiting efforts.
DevilsDigest: What brought you from Baton Rouge to Tempe and how hard was that decision leaving one of the powerhouse college programs in the country?
Sherman Morris: “It was a new and unique opportunity for me to come in and build something special. I had an opportunity to do something unique at LSU and now I’m looking forward to the next great challenge. I started out at LSU in 2007 and there we had some things that needed to be changed and corrected to improve the overall program and organize the philosophy and approach. I was able to do that and now it’s a system that repeats itself.
“When I left LSU we were concentrating on the 2015 class, but when I got here it’s more of concentration on 2014, making sure that is organized and putting in some stuff that will allow us to communicate exactly who Coach Graham is and what he’s all about, his philosophy and approach to recruiting and developing student-athletes. That’s the challenge that I look forward to embracing.”
DevilsDigest: No matter what the vantage point is, ASU is generally known as the proverbial “sleeping giant.” Was that also your perception when you were considering this position while still at LSU and how much of that perception was or is reality now that you have been on the job for a several weeks?
Sherman Morris: “I look at it from the standpoint of the university that has so much to offer. It’s a great location, great academic programs, great facilities and if you look at (state of) Arizona as a whole – we recruited Arizona a lot when I was at LSU. So with that in mind I knew that there were a lot of prospects here that can make the program better.
“The biggest thing that we have to do here is that we have to change the student-athletes’ perception. Most of the local student-athletes feel like they have to leave the state in order to accomplish their goals or to play ‘big time football.’ But the reality is that we play in the Pac-12 – this is big time football right here. Any opportunity to be successful not only for four years, but for 40 years and throughout your lifetime is here.
“What we are going to try and do is communicate that – the importance of staying home, the reality that you have an opportunity to accomplish all your hopes and dreams right here by staying in-state. Not only that, but when you come out of the locker room during a home game you don’t only have your parents there but all of your friends and everybody that grew up with you. You have an entire community and an entire state watching you and following you throughout your entire athletic career, and that is important.”
DevilsDigest: Some may think that the busiest time of the year recruiting wise is the period between the end of the regular season and National Letter of Intent day. But obviously recruiting is a year round process. Can you give us some insight on some of the activities that will take place during the spring and summer months and how important they are in the overall recruiting picture?
Sherman Morris: “The spring allows our coaches to go out there and get two assessments. One is academic and one athletic. We like to go out and spend time in the school and try to learn as much as we can about the student-athlete. We can’t really make contact with them at that point, but we can develop what we call a character assessment to see if he is the right fit.
“Coach Graham is looking for a specific kind of student-athlete – character is important here. Not only do you have to be dominant on the football field, but we have to make sure that you have the right character so when you come in you have the right effect on the institution as well as the program and the community at large in a positive way. Those things are important as coaches go out and do their assessments.
“What we are organizing right now – we are concentrating on making sure we have 12-14 student-athletes in every position that are good enough to play at this university and make us better starting day one. We will spend time in making sure our coaches have enough of those student-athletes. In the spring those kids will either move up the charts or fall off the board, based on whether they’re committed or if they are other issues. But the reality is that we need 12-14 student-athletes.
“We start in a 200-mile radius. Every 200 miles we start expanding our outlook and see if we have student-athletes that are good enough to play here. Student-athletes usually commit to institutions that are no more than 400-600 miles away from home. So that is where you will get the bulk of your student-athletes. We are making sure that we populate our boards with enough student-athletes for the coaches. Beyond that we are making sure those guys are available for camp so they can go ahead and get on campus and have our coaches get an opportunity to work with them and have the student-athletes see what it’s like to be here on a daily basis.
“We also do unofficial visits, so when kids have spring break or are out of school they look around to narrow down their choices. We also prepare for that fall campaign and what we are going to do on our official visits, what dates are we going to select, hotels, meals…just how everything will be organized, as well as how we are going to handle the game day situation with prospects on the sidelines.”
DevilsDigest: Todd Graham has said many times that he will only recruit the best and brightest prospects who excel on the field and in the classroom. On the surface that seems to create that much more of a challenge to the recruiting process…or is that perception overrated?
Sherman Morris: “I think it’s changing over time as more and more student-athletes are concentrating on football year round, but they also understand that you have to have both (excellence in football and academics) and it’s not one over the other. We want student-athletes who have embraced the academic side as well as the athletic side. That’s not necessarily true in all cases because they are some guys that come in with deficiencies. But our goal is to recruit those guys who can perform, not only on the field but in the classroom.
“If they are deficient in some areas, make sure that we have the vehicles or programs in place that allow them to be successful not only on the field but in the classroom as well. That’s an important part. Coach Graham believes that if a kid is going to be successful on the football field, he must be first successful in the classroom. His overriding philosophy is that you need to make sure that you are taking care of your academics first. More than anything it’s about the academic experience, and if you take care of that your football experience will be enhanced.”
DevilsDigest: So much has been said and written about Jean Boyd and the academic support department he heads and their effectiveness with student-athletes. It’s also an aspect that is mentioned to me often by recruits and their families. What are you observations of ASU’s academic support in comparison to LSU?
“You have a tremendous academic support staff here at ASU. The guys here do a fantastic job. Jean leads the group but everyone is passionate about it. It’s not just a job for them, it’s passion and their pour everything they have into it. They have a road map to success making sure that student-athletes are prepared beyond college. They do a great job with that, and the scholar-baller program because players really buy into it. I’m excited about it because I see the guys committed to it. I go down to the second floor and they are working hard at it.
“It’s not going to be easy for some of the guys, but they just keep on chopping at it everyday and that’s important. Jean does a great job making sure that this environment is one that really facilitates that Sun Devils graduate.”
DevilsDigest: When it comes to recruiting junior college players, how does your recruiting approach specifically change compared to recruiting a high school player?
Sherman Morris: “I think it’s one and a same. I was a junior college athlete. Jean (Boyd) was a junior college athlete and both of us actually played football against each other. What you end up doing over time is that you have to find those guys in junior college that didn’t necessarily embrace the academic side in high school, but through the junior college experience understand how valuable education is.
“We say ‘it’s OK not to know, but it’s not OK not to try.’ Those individuals that have a desire to do better and want to embrace the academic side, these are the individuals that you recruit out of junior college. Those are individuals that can come here and be successful. It’s a challenge but it’s one that we have to embrace. We go through the early identification, comb the transcripts, spending time with the kid making sure that they can handle it. It’s a case by case situation. You do the research and make sure that you uncover as much as you can so a kid coming into the program can be successful.”
DevilsDigest: Much has been said about the stellar 2014 in-state class and the importance of keeping them home. Aside from the obvious need to improve the win-loss record, what else will lead ASU to “building the fence” around its home state?
Sherman Morris: “Whether someone is in-state or out of state, we want to share Coach Graham’s passion and the direction that he is taking this program. You talked about this place being a sleeping giant and we think this is an ideal place for a student-athlete, especially those who want to be successful. You don’t have to leave home to be successful. That’s the message we are trying to communicate. The things you want to accomplish are here, whether it’s a Rose Bowl championship or a national championship can be accomplished right here.
“A lot of these guys have grown up competing against each other in youth ball and in high school. What we are trying to do is to get them to understand that if they stay home and stay together, they can accomplish all those goals on the field and they have a great academic institution and they can accomplish all those goals to be successful for a lifetime.
“The opportunity to have your family, your friends watch you play on a week to week basis – we are the only institution that can offer that for in-state prospects.”
DevilsDigest: In the last recruiting class ASU was gaining a lot of early pledges from Texas, just to see those prospects de-commit and choose a school closer to home. What kind of strategy needs to be employed to prevent that trend in the future?
Sherman Morris: “It really is about communicating what Coach Graham is all about and more than anything the direction he is taking this program. Once all those things have been communicated, and the player has had an opportunity to see the campus, visit with our academic support, visit the individual colleges and the majors that he’s interested in and if he’s ready to make that declaration, he’ll understand that we have a shared commitment.
“What does that mean to be committed to ASU? It’s a shared responsibility and that will be our approach moving forward. When a kid makes a declaration we will have a conversation with him where we tell him ‘this is what you can expect from us.’ When Coach Graham says ‘I accept your commitment’ we are making a commitment to you not just for a few months or a few years – this is a lifetime commitment, because once you are a Sun Devil you are always a Sun Devil.
“So that is what we’ll communicate about the commitment and then we will have a series of expectations. Here is what you can expect from us: we are going to visit your campus, we are going to talk to your counselors, you will hear from us, when you’re playing this fall we will be coming to visit you, we will visit your home, and Coach Graham will visit your home. All these things will be laid out.
“Then we will have a series of expectations from the prospect. Here is what we expect you to do, because again we are making a commitment. We aren’t dating, we are making a commitment. That is what we want to communicate – what does that mean to commit and what does that responsibility means at Arizona State.”
DevilsDigest: In general, do you feel that the de-commitment trend is stronger than ever and what do you attribute that to? What are the steps that can be done to prevent it?
Sherman Morris: “I've seen it happening and that is where the idea of the shared commitment comes in. If you don’t define what it is to commit, a student-athlete who is going through this for the first time feels like ‘OK, this means that I’m just dating you. We’re not married.’ So when you talk about a commitment, what does that mean? You have to effectively communicate that and you bring that commitment into a crystallized focus then they understand that.
“We’re not pressuring guys to commit, because Arizona State is a place where you should want to be, because it offers you all those things you want to accomplish in life. So with your commitment we are telling you ‘these are the things that we will do for you. These are the things we will provide for you and this is what we are asking in return.’
“Once you share this in a crystallized way, you can minimize or mitigate guys decommiting. I think we can reduce that with no problem at all and that is what we have done in the past.”
DevilsDigest: At LSU you have be known to specialize in the use of technology in recruiting. What does that exactly consist of and what makes that emphasis so necessary?
Sherman Morris: “We will be working on coaches’ iPad application and if all goes well we want to launch a website for Coach Graham. We try to tag everything around Graham360, which is his approach to developing student-athletes. It’s a comprehensive approach where coach believes that we want to touch every aspect of a student-athlete’s life. We want to make sure that we aren’t just developing them on the field but also off the field. We want to make sure that they understand the responsibilities of the classroom and being in the community. We want them to be productive citizens. So that is how Graham360 came about. We call it ‘National Championship Lifestyle.’ That has been our approach.
“So it starts with Graham360. We have to make sure that more than anything we have to effectively communicate who Coach Graham is. I've been around Coach Miles who is a phenomenal coach, I've competed against Coach Saban and had the opportunity to meet some really great coaches around the country. But the reality is that Coach Graham doesn’t take a back seat to any of those guys. He has passion, he has desire, and he has commitment. He wants to build a championship winning program here. He wants to make sure that student-athletes are having an experience unlike any in America.
“Those are the things we want to make sure that we want to communicate. Being around Coach Graham, I sense his passion, I sense the urgency of the moment. So basically what I want to do through technology is to make sure that this is communicated to student-athletes.
“If you sit down and talk to Coach Graham for five minutes, I don’t know why a student-athlete wouldn’t jump into his lap and want to commit right away. He has that passion and commitment to this program where guys want to come and play. We have to get that message out to the masses so they can see what Arizona State is really about and the direction it’s going in. That is what we are going to do through technology.”
DevilsDigest: How important is it for coaches to actively be involved with social media – both in terms of recruiting and marketing the team?
Sherman Morris: “It’s more about message control, because student-athletes are using social media more and more. Guys are communicating via text messages, tweeting, little on Facebook but not as much as it was in the past because Twitter is big. So when guys communicate that way, it’s important for coaches to have a message out there that resonates with student-athletes and that’s in an area where they can see that message. If you don’t do that, others will define the message for you and ultimately not going to do it in the most positive way.”
DevilsDigest: On the topic of social media, it’s no secret that many of the top high school recruits enjoy the attention they receive from the fan bases of the schools pursuing them. However, from a compliance perspective this can be a potentially troublesome situation. What advice would you pass along to fans in this scenario?
Sherman Morris: “Obviously, we don’t fans to recruit for us. They can share their love for ASU, their experience with ASU and what they like about the program. But as far as recruiting, I think our staff does a good job at that so we don’t want to make them feel like they have to recruit.
“It’s a great time for the student-athletes and our fans have to understand that these are still kids going through a once in a lifetime process. We want to make sure it’s fun for them, but at the same time we don’t want to add additional pressure on them. We want them to understand that our fans support the institution, its mission and values, and the goals of the institution and program at large.
“If they share their passion and commitment in a positive way, I think student-athletes will want to be a part of this great experience.”
DevilsDigest: Granted, each school has its unique attributes, but what are some vital selling points and recruiting strategies each program needs to have to be successful in recruiting?
Sherman Morris: “You have to graduate your student-athletes, you have to give them an opportunity to play championship winning football, and more than anything else you have to care about them. Every institution is going to have a big stadium, they will be playing on national television, but more importantly no one cares how much you know until you show how much you care. That is the thing that will differentiate us from everyone else.
“I fundamentally believe that Coach Graham has the passion and commitment not only to the student-athletes but also to the coaches and staff. He treats us well, he’s a good man with strong values and he wants to build a championship winning program. Again, he wants to give student-athletes an experience unlike anywhere else. That is the thing that will make us special all the time.”
DevilsDigest: Aside from what you already mentioned, what do you feel are some of ASU’s other strong selling points and what do you think are some of the underrated factors here?
Sherman Morris: “You have a President, an Athletic Director, and a Head Coach that have a shared vision. You have a dynamic institution that is forward thinking. Great climate, great location and good people. What else can you ask for? These are all resources and you are in a hotbed that is growing.
You have a tremendous amount of quality athletes. If we can keep 85-90 percent of the student-athletes home we will be successful all the time. If you look at the institutions that have been successful, that’s what they do. If you look at Alabama, LSU, Texas when they were on top – they all keep their top athletes at home. That has to be our focus. We have to make them understand that you don’t have to leave and that everything you want is right here.”
DevilsDigest: So going back to that “sleeping giant” label...from a recruiting perspective, what is the blueprint to modify that label so ASU is now simply a “giant”?
Sherman Morris: “Selling our ‘why.’ Communicating our ‘why’ over time. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Coach Graham is a passionate coach who believes in the mission of this institution and is committed to having a championship program here and keeping our student-athletes in this valley at home.
“That’s going to be the difference.”
Joe Healey contributed to this article